Youth Justice


A new report was released in June that sheds a sobering light on how many Black and Latino boys grow up in communities that are, in a number of ways, dangerous to their health. Called “Healthy Communities Matter: The Importance of Place to the Health of Boys of Color,” the report contained contributions from scholars and researchers at the RAND Corporation, PolicyLink, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, and the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice and the Department of Emergency Medicine at Drexel University. It was funded by the California Endowment. Some of its data and best practices focus on California but the lessons learned apply to communities across the country.

The researchers found that boys and young men overall experience worse health outcomes than girls, that these health disparities are even more profound for Black and Latino boys, and that many of these disparities can be connected to community patterns. As they explain: “Negative health outcomes for African-American and Latino boys and young men are a result of growing up in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage, places that are more likely to put boys and young men directly in harm’s way and reinforce harmful behavior. In other words, if you grow up in a neighborhood with a good school, where it’s safe, where you can walk and play outside, where you have a regular doctor and where you have access to good food, you are more likely to live a long and healthy life. On the other hand, if you grow up in a neighborhood where you’re not safe, where your school is failing you and where you do not have a place to go when you are sick or a basic grocery store, then you are far more likely to live a shorter life, to earn less money, to be party to or victim of violence and to be far less healthy emotionally and physically. If you are African American or Latino, you are likely to face not just one of those challenges, but many or all of them at once.”

They found disparities for Black and Latino boys and young men in a number of areas, including infant mortality, childhood asthma hospitalizations, childhood obesity, post-traumatic stress disorder, rates of HIV and AIDS, and lack of health insurance and access to health care. They also found safety disparities, including higher rates of exposure to domestic and community violence, child abuse and neglect, lifetime likelihood of going to prison, and gun violence and homicide death rates. The researchers also were able to track how social inequalities and negative neighborhood conditions work together to shape the life course of boys and young men in schools and communities of “concentrated disadvantage.” They note that these schools’ and neighborhoods’ common characteristics, including concentrated poverty, community violence, high rates of incarceration, overexposure to unhealthy foods, and lack of recreation often work together to lead to disruptive behavior and psychological conditions for boys and young men of color. For the Children’s Defense Fund and others concerned about dismantling the pipeline to prison for children of color, their descriptions of accumulated risks and negative outcomes are sadly familiar.

But there are solutions. As these researchers say, “To recalibrate the life trajectory of African-American and Latino boys and young men, policymakers, community activists and government officials must view the health of a community not in individual parts, but as an unbroken whole, made up of individual but virtually inseparable parts.” The report profiles several California organizations and public/private partnerships that are doing just that and achieving results including the California Endowment’s Healthy Returns Initiative, which is designed to address the growing number of youths with untreated health and mental health needs in the state’s juvenile justice system; Youth UpRising, a successful Oakland youth organization and community center that includes health and mental health care, a healthy café, and job training among its offerings; and Safe Community Partnership, which is using a public health approach to help stop gun violence.

The researchers summarize their findings this way: “If we have a clearer understanding of [the problems facing Black and Latino boys and young men], then we are all more obligated to do something about it. And once we know that the trauma these children experience is a product of many different factors in their homes, schools and neighborhoods, then it becomes incumbent on health, education, criminal justice and civic leaders to all work together to improve conditions. As a society, we place great emphasis on the personal responsibility of the individual, and our families and institutions should do everything they can to instill in all of our boys and young men a strong sense of self-worth, hope and accountability. But if we expect our children to climb over poverty’s great barriers without help from the rest of us, then we are the ones who are being irresponsible…Improving the places where our boys and young men of color live, learn, work and play is no easy undertaking. But it is doable. And that makes it the right thing to do.”